Russia Could Easily Change the Game in Syria – For Better or for Worse

A Pro Regime Protest in Damascus in front of the Russian Embassy. 


By Charles Johnson and Scott Lassan

World media has been abuzz in recent weeks about the increasing Russian presence in Syria. The Assad regime, the long-time Middle Eastern ally of Russia, has welcomed the inflow of several shipments of advanced Russian weaponry and is now hosting approximately 1,000 Russian advisers among their military ranks. Russian interest in the country has been long-standing, and the Kremlin has even tried leading peace efforts, despite being largely fruitless so far. But as of this week, Russia has shifted its interest in the conflict to a more material stance

At a recent news conference, Assad actually admitted that the Syrian military was losing ground in certain areas, mainly because of a lack of manpower. Statistics can be hard to come by in war-torn Syria but according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 50,000 regular Syrian troops have been killed along with over 4,000 fighters from various pro-regime groups like Hezbollah. The New York Times reported in April 2015 that the size of Syria’s army was half that of its original size before the civil war began, as a result of both casualties and desertions, particularly among minority communities that had been supporting Assad like the Druze in early stages of the conflict. These numbers pale in comparison to the over 200,000 civilian lives that have been lost, mostly due to regime attacks, but the loss of military manpower has obviously affected Assad’s command and control capabilities. Put simply, Assad needs reinforcements, ones from a modern, mechanized military. Putin and Assad have apparently reached an agreement to make this happen.

News that Russian troops are directly participating in battle in Syria is likely to be damning to Putin’s diplomatic political capital. Each day the evidence of Russian participation in the order of battle becomes more convincing, with it being most recently reported that some of Russia’s most modern battle tanks have made their way to Syria through an air corridor that saw Russian cargo planes fly through Iran and Iraq to deliver the hardware. However, the definitive truth as to the level of Russian involvement is likely to become obfuscated under piles of counterfactual Kremlin-sympathetic propaganda. Yet, it is a common practice of the Russian military not to leave its most advanced technology in the hands of untrained foreign allies, so assuming Russian soldiers might see some action is not unreasonable. The motivations for Russia’s increased involvement remain opaque and we can expect a continually terse policy from the Kremlin and Assad in the near future.

So why now? In order to better understand why Russia is suddenly dramatically increasing its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, one needs to examine both Putin’s and Assad’s motivations and understand this bold move in the context of both of their broader security agendas.

Assad’s Motivation: Nothing to Lose Politically, Losing Ground Militarily, and US Diplomacy

Assad has many motivations to accept direct Russian military aid, the most obvious of which is that he has absolutely nothing to lose from this. The list of Assad’s international supporters is increasingly thin, and the list of those providing material support is even thinner, namely only Iran (through proxies like Hezbollah) and Russia. Russian support, however, has been substantial and consistent. In 2012, as the conflict heated up, Syrian-Russian military contracts totaled $5.5 billion. Assad is already vilified by most of the world so seeking further help from Vladimir Putin, who is also not particularly popular within the international community, doesn’t hurt him in the least bit.

As was previously mentioned, Assad is also losing ground on the battlefield. Laying sieges to major cities like Aleppo and the regime’s mounting casualties and defections is draining both resources and manpower. The Syrian army also finds itself in the extremely difficult position of fighting against pretty much everyone. Yes, the Assad regime has had allies like Hezbollah and Iran operating in the country, but it still has had to contend with approximately 1,000 armed opposition groups (many of which fight under larger banners).

Another reason that Assad may be seeking more direct Russian aid could be related to Obama’s recent announcement that US forces would provide air cover to US-trained rebel forces, even if attacked by Assad’s forces. It remains to be seen whether or not Obama’s declaration will actually be turned to practice (the idea has been downplayed by Pentagon officials), but such a declaration could be a game changer. The presence of Russian forces on the ground, however, may cause US policymakers and military commanders to hesitate using air power to hit attacking Assad forces if they think Russians may also be in the vicinity.

The potential thawing of relations between the U.S. and Iran could also be a reason Assad is turning more to Russia. Despite proclamations from Iran’s Khamenei that there would be no other agreements between the U.S. and Iran after the nuclear deal, its hard to ignore that these two estranged countries are entering a turning point in their relationship, an issue that may also be on Assad’s mind. Iran and the U.S. have already found themselves fighting a common enemy in ISIS within neighboring Iraq. While the coordination has mostly been limited to staying out of each other’s way, the combination of the nuclear deal and some degree of coordination in Iraq may make the Assad regime somewhat cautious about its Iranian benefactor, despite claims by many skeptics that Iran will never give up Syria.

Putin’s Motivation: Legitimacy, Domestic Pandering, and Lining up Moscow’s Enemies for Targeting

Before the Western world goes off decrying Russian intervention in the Middle East, it should be made clear what Russian interests are in the Syrian Civil War. First and foremost, Russia is arguably the European country most directly threatened by returning fighters from the self-styled Islamic State. It is estimated that upwards of 2,000 Russian citizens, primarily fighters from the North Caucasian insurgency have traveled to Syria. One especially damning investigation by journalists from Novaya Gazeta suggested that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) encouraged militants to travel to Syria to simply get them out of Russia. With Russians now on the other side of the lines, the Kremlin’s largest domestic enemies are lined up on foreign soil opposite an impressive array of Russian weaponry. On a less controversial note, Russia’s influx of support ensures the survival of its closest Middle Eastern ally for the foreseeable future, and if Russia potentially starts running operations against the Islamic State, it could be the kind of brash, asymmetrical, and rule-less intervention that has proven to topple entities very quickly. Put simply, this is a golden opportunity for the Kremlin to project power and handle sensitive domestic matters stemming from its own Jihadist problems.

Beyond day-to-day security business in Russia, Vladimir Putin could also be using Syria as a piece in the larger context of his security agenda. The Putin Doctrine, put simply, is predicated on three concise tenants: 1. Projecting Russian power and legitimacy in a way that maintains Putin’s domestic support. 2. Having a veto vote on policy in places Moscow used to control. 3. Consolidating international power around Moscow in the context of what Putin thinks to be a multi-polar world. Russian intervention in Syria fits nicely into these three categories. We have written at length before about how Russia’s power projections abroad are done vis-à-vis Russian leaders’ desire to prevent any popular challenge to their legitimacy. This can be seen in Putin’s rhetoric over Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In branding himself as an alternative to the West, Putin will need a better Middle Eastern strategy than the West, which in all reality is probably not very difficult to achieve. This has given Putin legitimacy as an international crisis solver – as he did by deterring US airstrikes against Assad in 2013. Media and analysts run the risk of forgetting Russia’s comprehensive foreign policy in light of happenings in Ukraine. Let’s not forget the Arctic, Space, or the Caucasus. If Russia can achieve whatever it is they wish to do in Syria, it will be a major victory towards establishing the kind of legitimacy that the Soviet Union enjoyed in world affairs in the latter half of the 20th century.

Likely Outcomes

Regardless of motivations, the movement of Russian troops and material into Syria has the prospect of leading towards one of several possible scenarios.

If the presence of Russian troops on the battlefield becomes a significant issue, it is highly likely there will be an increase in the training of Syrian rebels by the U.S., in this case to act as a proxy force to prevent US forces from accidentally engaging Russian troops. The training of a Syrian force by the U.S. for the purposes of counteracting ISIS, however, has been painstakingly slow. In June 2015, CNN reported that less than 100 individuals had ben trained thus far and until Obama’s speech that US airpower would protect these units, this US-backed force had not been faring very well.

The one thing that is certain to occur with an increased Russian presence is that the operating space for combat operations against ISIS will become much more difficult. The US and Iran are already trying to avoid each other, and now with the US likely going to try avoiding any Russian air or ground units, the potential for a fatal mistake is at an all-time high. If an American aircraft were to be downed by a Russian weapon in Russian hands (extremely hard to track), any US accusations of foul play will likely be met with a string of denials from Putin. Such a scenario would likely play out like the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine and become consumed by another information war. Furthermore, it would be an absolute disaster (a huge advantage for Putin) if the US Air Force accidentally attacked/killed Russian military units. The Kremlin would have its dream scenario in its ongoing bid to demonize the United States. To see this campaign in action, look no further than the time Russian state-run media actually compared Barack Obama to IS’s leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. With US-Russian relations at an all-time low, any misstep on either side would be disastrous.

With such high stakes, the most likely scenario will unfortunately be that the current status quo will remain with the various actors tip-toeing around each other, all to the detriment of civilian lives that will be lost in the crossfire. There is the remote possibility of something akin to World War II’s Operation Frantic where the U.S. and Russia could actually cooperate in the order of battle instead of simply existing in the same theater with a common enemy. With how crowded the Syrian war is becoming, this cooperation would be geopolitically unprecedented, and an effective counter to ISIS and other extremist groups fighting in Syria. However, given the prickly nature of US – Russian relations and the fact that they would eventually have to address the elephant in the room that is Bashar al-Assad, we see no possibility of such an operation ever happening, despite its potential to help resolve the conflict.

Photo by Freedom House / CC BY 2.0


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